Kentucky Horse Park front gate

Kentucky Horse Park front gate.
Photo by Lisa Andres

Kentucky Horse Park is one of those marvels that many people outside of horses don’t know much about. For many horse lovers, going to KHP is like attending the Super Bowl for the first time, or going backstage to meet a rock star. Or maybe it’s more like Disneyland for horse enthusiasts.

The land that KHP stands on has been home to horses for more than two centuries. The original 9,000-acre tract was deeded by the governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry, to his brother-in-law in 1777 and it changed hands many times over the next 200 years. The land was subdivided by various owners and used for breeding Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, and Saddlebreds.

During the 1970s, Thoroughbred breeding farms in Kentucky began to close their doors to visitors, but Thoroughbred breeding and racing were still important parts of the state’s economy. In order to promote Thoroughbred racing to the world year-round, two Lexington locals, breeder John Gaines and civil servant James Host, suggested creating a park dedicated to Thoroughbred horses and the Bluegrass State. Eventually it was decided that the park would focus on all breeds of horses.

Kentucky Horse Park breed demo

A breed demonstration at Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by Lolly20 at Wikimedia Commons

In 1972, 1,200+ of the original 9,000 acres were sold to the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which developed the land into Kentucky Horse Park for $28 million. It opened to the public in November 1978.

The original Kentucky Horse Park included a movie theater with a wrap-around screen that featured the Techniscope film Thou Shalt Fly Without Wings, a museum with restored horse-drawn vehicles, historical dioramas featuring life-like taxidermied horses, and a monument to Man O’ War.

But the pièce de résistance was the FEI World Eventing Championship held at KHP in September 1978, two months before the park opened for visitors. Originally, the television networks wanted the park to pay them for airing the championship, but once they learned more about the event and KHP, the networks were willing to pay the park for the broadcast rights.

Man O War statue at Kentucky Horse Park

The Man O War monument at Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by Robert M. Hunt

In the early days Kentucky Horse Park was sometimes called a “white elephant” for being a costly government project, but with continuing investment and visionary development KHP has become an important part of Kentucky’s economy. Annual tax revenues generated by KHP are estimated to be around $250 million and the park welcomed over 1 million visitors in 2010. KHP’s success story has inspired the state of New York to consider its own plan for a horse park.

In 2010 the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games were held at KHP and generated more than $200 million for the local economy.

Today, Kentucky Horse Park is like Mecca to many horse fans. There are 13 life-size bronze sculptures of legends like Secretariat, *Bask, Supreme Sultan, Man O’ War, and Misty of Chincoteague. The farm is home to famous real horses as well — Funny Cide, the first New York-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, and Standardbred gelding Western Dreamer, a Pacing Triple Crown winner, are pampered and adored by fans at KHP. There are nearly 50 different breeds represented at the horse park.

The International Museum of the Horse features historical exhibits, including horses in Imperial China and in the British Isles. In addition, there’s a 8,000 square foot exhibit called the Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries that has a movie theater, several famous paintings and bronze sculptures of Arabians, and history and culture of the Arabian breed. The American Saddlebred Museum is also on the premises and features Saddlebred history and an annual art auction.

Cigar at Kentucky Horse Park

Cigar, who lived out his retirement at Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by Just Chaos at Wikimedia Commons

The Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center at KHP rescues retired racing Thoroughbreds and raises awareness about their value as riding horses. There are also 30+ equine associations based at KHP, like the American Hanoverian Society and the U.S. Dressage Federation.

KHP even has a campground with special events for those who like to rough it, and you can bring your horse with you too.

Every summer, KHP hosts Breyerfest, the annual model horse event that attracts thousands of collectors from around the world. Events include model horse shows, seminars, an auction, exclusive sales, and real horse performances.

Below is Rick Lamb’s 26-minute TV episode about the historical exhibits at Kentucky Horse Park.